I’m happy to report that good-sounding speakers outweighed not-so-good-sounding ones at this year’s CES, although judging their virtues and flaws was made more difficult by two relatively new wrinkles. First, though most rooms were equipped with analog, digital, and computer-audio sources, a number of them, including several I was quite curious about, were sourced by servers only. This presents a problem for me, because unless I’m familiar with some of the cuts stored on these servers I end up listening to music I haven’t heard before in a variety of formats I haven’t heard before on stereo systems I haven’t heard before in hotel rooms that are far from ideal listening spaces. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to determine whether the speakers at the back end of the chain are reproducing anything like what was actually recorded at the front end.
Of course, when a voice or an instrument sounds “real” it makes little difference whether you’re familiar with the recording or not. The absolute sound is, after all, the absolute sound. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions I will come to, I didn’t hear much of the absolute sound at CES 2013. Oh, many speakers sounded unusually beautiful, liquid, dynamic, and exciting, but “fool-you” realistic? Not so much.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that many of these speakers aren’t capable of sounding highly realistic under better circumstances. It just means I didn’t hear them sound this way.
As usual, let me preface this report with an apology. I do my best to cover the most interesting high-end speakers at The Venetian, but I’m just one guy and there are bound to be rooms that I miss. To those manufacturers I didn’t get the chance to visit, my sincere apologies.
The 29th Floor
I’m going to report on these ultra-high-end speakers in roughly the order I heard them, beginning with the exhibits on the 29th floor of The Venetian.
As fate would have it, the first speaker I heard was the $77k Marten Coltrane Tenor—the latest addition to the Swedish speaker-manufacturer’s renowned Coltrane line. A three-way, four-driver floorstander in a handsome, ported, carbon-fiber/hardwood enclosure, the Tenor (like other Coltranes) uses an Accuton diamond tweeter and an Accuton ceramic midrange, but its twin, convex, aluminum-sandwich woofers are entirely new designs. I’ve very much liked Marten speakers at past shows, but at CES the tiny room was clearly not doing these largish numbers any favors (nor, IMO, were the Nagra electronics). On my Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos, the Tenors were very clear but too bright and aggressive in the pianos’ upper octaves, with little to no stage depth (and this is a recording with considerable stage depth). Ditto for Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time,” where Lennie’s voice sounded nasal and hooded, his marvelous backup singers too bright, and the bass line non-existent.
The $160k Danish-engineered Angel Sound S8s (pictured at the start of this blog) certainly made a design statement. With highly sculpted, sealed enclosures formed from MDF and fiber-glass-reinforced plastic, these three-ways with ScanSpeak drivers looked to me like banana-colored creamy whips. On my Blue Tofu cut, “Battle Between,” they even sounded the way creamy whips taste—sweet, liquid, and yummy. The S8s didn’t have the pop in the bottom octaves that the Blue Tofu cut is capable of, but what bass they did have was well-defined. Not an exciting presentation, but a very listenable one.
The $28.5k (including stands) Raidho D1 was one of the speakers I was most eager to hear at this year’s CES. A stand-mount two-way housed in exactly the same compact, angled, aluminum-fronted enclosure as its less expensive brother, the marvelous $17.5k C1.1, the D1 uses a diamond/carbonite-sandwich mid/woof instead of a ceramic-sandwich one. Putting aside the fact that a diamond membrane this size is an engineering/manufacturing first, the advantage of Raidho’s new driver is that (because of its greatly increased stiffness—diamond is 140 times harder than ceramic) the mid/woof’s first break-up mode is raised from 12.5kHz to 20kHz, making for an audibly smoother blend with Raidho’s fabulous quasi-ribbon tweeter. The diamond driver also goes deeper in the bass than the ceramic one—with considerably more oomph. I will go into more detail about the D1 when I get to my Best of Show winners, but suffice it to say that the new Raidho was my first Best Sound of Show nominee.